Do You Read ‘Problematic’ Books to Your Kids?

Do You Read ‘Problematic’ Books to Your Kids?
Photo: mrPliskin, Getty Images

To understand the often unspoken depth with which we were raised in a sexist and racist society, one needs only to become a parent and decide it would be fun to experience some of our favourite books, movies, or cartoons from our childhood with our kids. Suddenly it’s abundantly clear that we didn’t grow up reading books like Ada Twist, Scientist and watching shows like Odd Squad, both of which are excellent and feature strong, intelligent female characters and characters of colour. No, we watched Looney Tunes and classic Disney movies with their racist undertones, and read fairy tales in which every damsel is in distress and in need of a strapping young prince to save her.

When we read and watch these things decades later, with an adult perspective that is, hopefully, more discerning, we realise how incredibly problematic they are and how they plant the seeds of gender and racial stereotypes at such a young age. So, then, we’ve got three choices. We can say, “Ah well, I turned out fine and they will, too,” and let them have at it, uncensored and without explanation. (Least-preferred, obviously.) We can ban all of it altogether. (Knowing they might find it on YouTube eventually.) Or we can do what Emma Brockes describes for The Guardian as “live-editing:”

These are the tangents and asides, but there is a swifter set of interventions executed at the level of reflex. In Curious George, all the nurses are female and the doctors are male, gender allocations which I instinctively reverse. In Snow White, it’s a question of how we indicate value. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest — and smartest! — of them all”, while in Charlotte’s Web, some fancy footwork is required to get around the fact that 8-year-old Fern puts on a dress for the fair because boys might be there.

The motherlode, of course, is Roald Dahl, whose brilliance at engaging young kids is in proportion to the amount of work you have to do on the fly to update him. I don’t mind violence in children’s books; the sudden deaths please the crowd and are bracingly uncondescending. He hates fat people, however — particularly fat women, or perhaps women in general; the aunts in James and the Giant Peach are a pair of “ghastly hags” (in my version “terrible people”).

I had a similar experience with the original Curious George, which was published in 1941. Basically all the characters are (white) males, we identify policemen as either being “thin” or “fat,” and everybody smokes a pipe — including George. I’d read it aloud a few times, wondering where all the women were, explaining why smoking is bad, and skipping the words “thin” and “fat” entirely, before finally “losing” the book so I wouldn’t have to read it anymore.

Sometimes I’ve used these books and shows to illustrate what not to do, how not to describe someone, or to talk about stereotypes and why they are unfair and untrue. Other times, I’ve simply banished them completely. Reading Brockes’ piece made me curious how other parents handle stories like these.

So, tell us in the comments: Do you read these sorts of problematic books, and watch problematic movies and TV shows with your kids? And if you do, do you “live edit” as you go?


  • I knew I had to read this article as soon as I saw the title of it sitting there luring me towards it. A catchy title, yet predictably exactly what I thought it was going to be about.
    Some little “cancel culture” individual who loves to pick through and chase down every little thing they can, that, according to them, be offensive or may offend someone somewhere.

    Meghan Moravcik Walbert, you said yourself above when referring to the book Curious George, “…which was published in 1941”
    So here you are in 2020 picking apart something that was perfectly normal for the times. Perhaps just explain that to your kids and explain how far we have come today (and still have a way to go) rather than altering the words to suit yourself. Have you considered that calling for History to be altered because it offends “your” sensitivities may indeed be offensive to others ?

    I can mention many events that have taken place over the years which generations coming through are shielded from with altered history books or simply events that are just ignored. I won’t mention any here but to what beneficial end exactly is that ? It happened, deal with it.
    Pulling down statues, altering or eliminating text books because they do not reflect society today or history the way we want it to read, wrapping kids on cotton wool, will not give us a future of critical thinkers and strong minded and souls with strong character, because you have simply fed them baby-food and fairy-tales.

    And contradicting your own mind set in this article ;
    …”“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest — and smartest! — of them all”..
    So what about the child that is not so smart in school ?
    Here’s a thought ;
    “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest — and most honest! — of them all”

    Young’ns have to deal with the likes of the facebook and twitter era and all the trouble that has introduced with fake news, cyber bullying, and corporate censorship (where comments that do not reflect the political agenda of facebook and twitter are removed/banned) that subsequently removes two sides of opinion/view and we end up with generations of indoctrinated individuals. So which is better, factual education or emotional degradation and indoctrination.

    Have you considered why so many kids suffer from Anxiety today, and indeed many young adults ?
    Perhaps shielding them from reality, giving them “participation ribbons”, is not such a great idea and is actually contributing to them hitting the wall when they realize once they get a job they must perform or lose it, or are up against 100 other applicants or actually have to work hard to get that Uni degree, that there are no awards for second place. Life is real. History is real.
    Telling them at a reasonably young age, that if you want to make it in this world, you must work hard for it. (just look at the Chinese). In saying that while it is necessary to keep them grounded in reality, it is very much equally necessary to encourage, support, and to love them deeply and make it clear that not ending up as an Astronaut or Model/Ballerina really isn’t a big deal. That it is perfectly okay for a girls and boys to have aspirations and careers which one might consider as generally being dominated by one gender or the other.
    Teaching boys to respect girls, that women are as strong and capable as men and as intelligent as men, and that men and women are very much equal in our society is in my opinion more important than changing words in a book, or – ” “losing” the book so I wouldn’t have to read it anymore.. .”
    Moreover to “never” let a man talk down to you, mistreat you, manhandle you, or in any way insult you. Those that do are not men and are not worthy of your time.
    That is what I always told my Daughter, who enjoys Walt Disney movies and cartoons, and she I am proud to say, has fared well in her male dominated profession, is balanced and non-judgemental.

    …. a 66yo retired Dad.

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